IMAGE: Italy’s Matteo Politano celebrates with teammates. Photograph: Alberto Lingria/Reuters
Italy are back and they have a point to prove.
One of international football’s most decorated sides were left humiliated in November 2017 when a playoff defeat by Sweden ensured they would miss out on the 2018 World Cup.
It was the first time in 60 years the Azzurri had failed to qualify for the finals, leaving a proud football nation wounded, embarrassed and angry.
But manager Roberto Mancini has slowly but surely restored their pride and reputation since his appointment in May 2018 and has repeatedly stated that winning Euro 2020 is the target.
“My objective is to spend the summer signing autographs as a champion coach,” he told GQ magazine in May.
Italy head into the tournament – where they face Turkey in the opening game on June 11, Switzerland five days later and Wales on June 20 in Group A – as one of Europe’s most in-form teams.
They waltzed through qualifying, winning all 10 matches and accumulating a goal difference of plus 33.
Mancini’s side broke a record set by Vittorio Pozzo’s double World Cup-winning team of the 1930s by earning 11 consecutive victories.
They are now unbeaten in 25 games, winning 20, a run of form that equalled the feat of Marcello Lippi’s 2006 World Cup winners.
However, Lippi pointed to the coronavirus-enforced cancellation of friendlies against England and Germany in March last year as a missed opportunity.
“You need to play games against big teams to put the final pieces together. To get even more confidence,” he said.
While Italy’s unbeaten run is impressive, they have not faced a team currently in the top 10 in Europe in the FIFA rankings since a 0-0 draw with Portugal in November 2018.
Since taking the job Mancini has blooded a new generation of talented players ready to make an impact on the big stage.
Around six survivors from Italy’s Euro 2016 squad are likely to be involved this year in a group of players short on major tournament experience but stocked with ability.
Key members of the new guard include AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma (22), Inter Milan midfielder Nicolo Barella (24), Sassuolo playmaker Manuel Locatelli (23) and Juventus winger Federico Chiesa (23).
So many youngsters have broken into the national team under Mancini that a green “renaissance” kit was released in October 2019 by Puma, who said it was to “celebrate the many young talents becoming protagonists”.
Mancini uses a 4-3-3 formation and looks to dominate possession through a midfield trio that includes two playmakers in Jorginho and Marco Verratti, although the fitness of the latter is uncertain.
This allows them to dictate the tempo and keep things tight defensively, an age-old trait of successful Italy sides that has not been neglected by Mancini, whose team conceded just four goals in qualifying.
The biggest question mark is over the attack. Lazio’s Ciro Immobile is likely to lead the line, but the 31-year-old has often struggled to replicate his club form in an Azzurri shirt.
Nevertheless, Italy’s combination of defensive resilience, home advantage for the group stage and a wily manager should be enough to see them through their group.
Once they are in the knockout stages, the Italians can never be ruled out.